Guided by God: All Stars' Nalo Sampson returns to Panorama stage

Pannist Nalo Sampson says this year the music took her back to where she came from and brought her forward to who she is now.  - Jeff K. Mayers
Pannist Nalo Sampson says this year the music took her back to where she came from and brought her forward to who she is now. - Jeff K. Mayers

The video of Massy All Stars' winning performance at the 2024 Panorama competition has been making its rounds on social media, with the spotlight falling on the passion of frontline tenor player Nalo Sampson as she contributed to the band's rendition of Olatunji's Inventor – while wearing stilettos no less.

Sampson, a devout Christian who had last performed with the band in 2016, told WMN she decided to play in this year's competition a week before the preliminary judging.

"I saw Smooth (arranger Leon Edwards) in passing in the panyard and he said the band was playing Inventor by Olatunji...I didn’t know the song as my radio is always on the gospel station 98.1," she said with a smile.

"But when I listened to it I got an energy that I get when I perform Unknown Band, my favourite Panorama arrangement. I also heard parts of Woman on the Bass in between," – Scrunter's song with which the band had won the Panorama title in 1980.

"I also remember telling him, 'the Lord say we're winning Panorama this year eh' even before I had heard a note of the song being played."

She said an urge to play, that she had not felt in the last seven years, started to build up within her.

"I asked myself, 'What is this?' Then I said, 'Lord, we have to talk."

She said she had a discussion with the Holy Spirit and got His "permission" to play.

When the band did a mock stage performance and she took her place next to ace pannist Dane Gulston, she said, she gave the All Stars supporters who came to the panyard a big surprise.

"They saw me in front and everybody started to go crazy. It was a genuine surprise to them."

But, she said, it was an even bigger surprise to her to see how so many people welcomed her back to the stage.

"I thought the welcome would have only been from the people in the panyard. I never thought the video of our performance was going to reach international and people would be sending me friend requests on social media. So much so, that I can't keep up.

After being away from the Panorama stage for seven, Massy All Stars frontline player Nalo Sampson returned with her pan passion and stiletto heels. - Angelo Marcelle

"There were some people who were sceptical about my ability to make it past the prelims round because I had been out of competition for so long, but I felt it was the Lord telling me, 'There is nothing you can't do.'"

Although Sampson, a senior clerical officer at the Port of Port of Spain was forced to take a break from performing owing to a workplace injury in 2016, she said even prior to that there was an internal spiritual battle brewing about whether or not she should continue to play.

"People were saying, 'You're serving two masters' and I couldn't understand what it was about because I didn't think I was doing anything that was ungodly. But they kept saying, 'You have a gift, you have a talent, what are you using it for? To glorify God or to encourage people to revel?'"

But she continued playing until one day while working at the ferry terminal in Port of Spain, she had an accident and fractured her tibia.

"And I wasn't even wearing high heels when it happened," she said with a chuckle.

"I was at home for two years, and you know with work-related injury leave there are certain protocols you have to follow. One of them is that you can't be seen in public, so I had to stop performing."

Sampson believes that sometimes when people can't make a decision, the Holy Spirit makes one for them.

"I'm not saying the injury was God's intent, but probably part of the journey I had to undertake. It needed to happen in order for me to get to where I am today."

She returned to work in 2018, but during the time she was recuperating, she said, she went through a period of depression.

"That was when I needed the prayers and support of the saints because my mental health was in a bad place."

Most times then, her phone used to be on silent mode and, being an introvert, she spent even more time by herself.

Ace Massy All Stars pannists Nalo Sampson, left, and Dane Gulston at the 2024 Panorama finals. - Jeff K. Mayers

"There was also a lot of unforgiveness in me, against people who would have wronged me in the past. But eventually, I realised I had to release it. It is unbelievable how toxic unforgiveness is to your mental and heart health. I had a lot of releasing to do, so that was a stripping and a pruning period for me."

Eventually, a friend from church noticed that she was not in a good place and he encouraged her to get involved in the everyday things that were happening at their church to keep her mind occupied.

"It gave me a purpose. I assisted in any way I could. They had chickens and I fed the chickens, I helped with the children in the daycare. That was where I found joy in giving back."

By the time she had returned to work, Sampson said she had got comfortable with her new routine.

"I was getting eight hours sleep, and I didn't think I could take the night dew, that is customary when you're a pannist, any more. I was so relaxed, and my time was more in church and in giving back to church."

But for her, the timing of her return to playing with the band in the competition was no coincidence.

"In biblical terms, seven is the number of completeness. I know my journey is not complete, but there was something significant about this year.

Sampson first started playing with All Stars in 1994 when she was 14 years old, having grown up in panyards.

"My parents were Desperadoes die-hards...When I started to play I got so much buff from my mother because I had no coordination whatsoever. I couldn't even tap my feet and play at the same time," – a far cry from the player who has now set a high standard for the ability to dance while playing.

"It was a joy, and always has been, to transmit how the music made me feel, to the audience. I am happy when I'm playing. The smile you see is real.

Pannist Nalo Sampson, third from left, spends some quality time with her family. Photo courtesy Nalo Sampson -

"I'm not too sure when the coordination happened. I'd like to think it was when the band was going on a tour to Jamaica and we were learning the reggae song, War.

"I was just clowning around in the yard and before you know it, everyone was saying, 'Okay, so we're doing what Nalo doing.'"

As for the signature heels, "I needed a pair of black shoes to wear for a performance, and I only had one pair of heels, so I wore it. Eventually, my heels became a statement piece. I practise in sneakers but I always perform in heels."

And what makes it easier, she said is that she and Gulston have a big-brother, little-sister synergy.

"We always know we have to do something when there is a stop within the performance. At the finals during the bass solo, it was a longer rest for us, so when Dane and I faced each other, he grabbed my hand and I grabbed his and we winged it.

"Even before we were frontline, I've always admired how he played and I would say, 'I can do that.' People say I'm the female version of him."

She said although she also plays double seconds, tenor is her forte.

"I can't move with the double seconds the way I can on a tenor. I was born for the tenor."

And although she has no formal training in music, that doesn't limit her ability to play.

"I am a performer. Give me anything to play and I will rock it out for you.

"Music is rhythm and it must have a feeling for everything. Every song has a different feeling that will bring back a different memory."

She recalled when she was a member of the band's stage side and they were playing The Lion King, the song brought back memories of her dad who had passed.

"Music is a mimic, so it brings a memory, and the memory brings an emotion, and the emotion brings a movement."

She said this year the music took her back to where she came from and brought her forward to who she is now.

"It was like an evolution and I moved to that."

She said she is also making a concerted effort to live up to her 2024 mantra – quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger – and to interact more with the people around her.

"I'm very shy but I've decided to try to get to know supporters in the panyard and the band members; to assist and encourage the junior members in any way I can. I want them to dare to be their true selves. And I've also started interacting on social media."

And although she is not certain about Panorama 2025, Sampson said this year's experience has been both inspiring and humbling.

"I used to think for so many years that I wasn't enough, but this experience showed me that I am more than that and that I am loved. He (God) has shown me the definition of my name – much loved."


"Guided by God: All Stars’ Nalo Sampson returns to Panorama stage"

More in this section